Stuart Chase - 4 Jul 2021
The Spiritual Discipline of Closet Prayer (Matthew 6:5–6)
In January 2005, a Barna Group study asked the senior pastors of 614 Protestant churches to rank their top three ministry priorities for that year. The question was not what three priorities the pastors were personally pursuing, but what three priorities they were seeking to instil in their churches that year. The answers were varied. Forty-seven percent of pastors listed discipleship among their top three priorities. Forty-six percent of the pastors surveyed listed evangelism as a top priority. Thirty-five percent listed preaching as a priority. Of the 614 senior pastors surveyed, only three percent listed prayer as a ministry priority. On average, no ministry priority ranked lower than prayer.
Something was radically different in Jesus’ ministry. While he taught his disciples to disciple, evangelise, and preach, only one time did the disciples specifically ask him to teach them something. “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples” (Luke 11:1). John recognised the priority of prayer. Jesus recognised the priority of prayer. His disciples saw in him such a priority of prayer that they asked him to teach them how to prioritise it. They learned well, of course, because later they would not allow the benevolent needs in the church to overshadow their commitment to prayer and the ministry of the word (Acts 6:4).
Jesus had much to say about prayer. One of his most familiar teachings on prayer is recorded in Matthew 6, where he instructed his disciples concerning what many have called “closet prayer.” Closet prayer is that discipline by which Christians set aside time to privately commune with God. Thomas Brooks called this discipline “the secret key to heaven.” Brooks writes, “Closet prayer or private prayer is an indispensable duty that Christ himself has laid upon all that are not willing to lie under the woeful brand of being hypocrites.”
We all know that devotion to prayer takes hard work. No spiritual discipline is harder than prayer. We know we need it. We know we should do it. But we so often find ourselves like the disciples: willing in spirit but weak in flesh. As we take some time to briefly consider this spiritual discipline, let us begin by defining what we are talking about and examining the text before us before we consider some practical ways by which we can prioritise this most important spiritual discipline.
A Definition of Closet Prayer
Arthur Pink writes, “Private prayer is the test of our sincerity, the index to our spirituality, the principle means of growing in grace. Private prayer is the one thing, above all others, that Satan seeks to prevent, for he knows full well that if he can succeed at this point, the Christian will fail at every other.”
By closet prayer, or private prayer, we simply mean that act by which the believer sets aside time to pray to God alone. As much as we emphasise the need in our church to pray corporately, there is nevertheless a crucial place in the Christian life for private prayer. Jesus, in fact, argued that devotion to corporate prayer divorced from commitment to private prayer is a sign of hypocrisy. The hypocrites loved to stand in public but loathed private time with God. As we consider this discipline, therefore, remember that we are talking specifically about the private discipline of prayer.
A Defence of Closet Prayer
Before we consider some helpful practices by which we can grow in this discipline, let us consider the text before us as a defence of the necessity of this practice. Observe five characteristics of closet prayer from these two verses.
First, closet prayer is assumed prayer: “When you pray.” Jesus did not say “if” but “when” you pray. He assumed that his disciples would give themselves to prayer. It is assumed that his disciples today will do the same.
Second, closet prayer is sincere prayer: “You must not be like the hypocrites.” He did not say, “You must not be a hypocrite” but, “You must not be like the hypocrites.” It is possible to behave like a hypocrite—to imitate hypocrisy—without being a full-blown hypocrite. We must be careful to ensure that our prayers are sincere and not characterised by the actions of a hypocrite. In this particular context, the hypocrites were eager to pray in public (for public recognition) but reticent to pray in private. To eagerly embrace corporate prayer while neglecting closet prayer is to profess one thing (to be a pray-er) but to do another (to not pray).
Third, closet prayer is humble prayer. Corporate prayer has a form of “reward” (public recognition) that closet prayer lacks. Closet prayer is a matter between the believer and God. Even if we don’t pray corporately with the express intention of impressing people (as the hypocrites did), it is nevertheless unavoidable that people will hear and appreciate our corporate prayers in a way they won’t our private prayers.
Fourth, closet prayer is private prayer: “When you pray, go into your room [‘closet’ in the KJV] and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.” The word translated “room” was used in the first century to speak of a secret chamber, a closed and locked parlour, or a safe or cupboard to safeguarding valuables. It is a place where one might be expected to go alone, in secret, to perform intimate and valuable exercises. It is a place where no one else would see you but you would be carrying on important work.
Fifth, closet prayer is rewarded prayer: “And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” What is the reward of which Jesus speaks here? The most obvious meaning of this is that God will answer the prayers of those who pray to him in secret. The reward is for your benefit. You know about answered prayer. Answered prayer encourages you and bolsters your faith. However, it is perhaps not insignificant that Jesus doesn’t specifically say what the reward will be. As MacArthur observes,
Jesus gives no idea in this passage as to what God’s reward, or repayment, will be. The important truth is that God will faithfully and unfailingly bless those who come to him in sincerity. Without question, the Lord will repay. Those who pray insincerely and hypocritically will receive the world’s reward, and those who pray sincerely and humbly will receive God’s.
A Drive for Closet Prayer
Before we practically consider how we can grow in this discipline, let’s briefly consider some additional driving motivations to improve. We have already considered the words of the Lord in Matthew 6:5–6. But here, very quickly are four additional motivations to prioritise closet prayer.
First, in closet prayer, we stand in a long line of saints of old who have given themselves to this discipline: for example, Abraham (Genesis 18:22–32; Genesis 19:27; 21:33); Isaac (Genesis 24:63); Jacob (Genesis 32:24–28); Moses (Exodus 34:28); David (Psalm 55:16–17); and Daniel (Daniel 6:10). These saints prioritised prayer and we do well to imitate them.
Second, in closet prayer, we emulate Christ, who frequently spent time alone in prayer (Matthew 14:23; Mark 1:35; 6:46; Luke 5:16; 612; etc.). The entire Christian life is the pursuit of Christlikeness—and this surely includes devotion to prayer.
Third, closet prayer affords us opportunity to unburden ourselves before God in a way that we might hesitate to do in public (see Psalm 142:2; cf. superscription). There are things that, for whatever reason, we will not ask others to pray for that we can pray for personally.
Fourth, this life is all the opportunity we will have for secret prayer. Prayer is the means by which we commune with God in the present, but in the eternal state, when we see him face to face, there will be no more need to pray by faith, for we will see him as he is.
William Bradbury closed his beloved hymn with this truth:
Sweet hour of prayer, sweet hour of prayer,
may I thy consolation share,
till from Mount Pisgah’s lofty height
I view my home and take my flight:
This robe of flesh I’ll drop, and rise
to seize the everlasting prize,
and shout, while passing through the air,
“Farewell, farewell, sweet hour of prayer!”
Pisgah was the mountain from which Moses beheld the Promised Land before he died (Deuteronomy 34:1–8). A day is coming when we will enter our eternal rest and prayer will be no more. Until then, let us prioritise this most important discipline.
A Design for Closet Prayer
As I said earlier, we all know the struggle of closet prayer. It is the discipline with which we struggle more than any other. Part of the reason may be that we have never thought carefully about how to prioritise this discipline—or we have never been taught to do so.
The truth is, we blame all sorts of things for our prayerlessness: busy lives, easily distracted minds, loud homes, lack of giftedness, etc. But the truth is, prayer is a matter of priority.
R. C. Sproul once wrote, “We always choose according to our strongest inclination at the moment of choice.” In any given moment, faced with any particular choice, we choose what we value the most. We may feel compelled by an external force (a threat to our life, for example) but our choices always reveal our values. When we don’t pray as we would like to pray, it is because, in that moment, when we are presented with the opportunity to pray or to do something else, we value the something else more than we value prayer.
Learning to pray means, among other things, learning to align your priorities with God’s priorities. It means deciding that prayer is important than an extra thirty minutes of sleep or getting in your exercise for the day and therefore getting before God to pray.
So here are three practical suggestions to help you prioritise this discipline.
First, develop a plan for prayer. There is space for spontaneous, unplanned prayer in the Christian life, but as a discipline, we must plan for it. Schedule time in your day to pray. That may mean getting up thirty minutes earlier, or setting aside your lunch time, or switching off the TV a little earlier before bedtime. However you do it, plan to pray. Prayer won’t happen if you don’t plan it. There will always be something vying for your attention.
Second, find a place for prayer. This is easier for some than for others. I recognise that. Nevertheless, finding a space where you can withdraw from other distractions is hugely beneficial to healthy prayer. Perhaps you’ll pray out on a walk. Perhaps you’ll find a quiet spot in your house. Perhaps you’ll hide in your car during your lunch break. Perhaps there is a quiet space in your office complex during the day. It doesn’t really matter where but finding a place where you can turn off other distractions will aid you in this discipline.
Third, adopt a posture of prayer. There is no right or wrong way to do this. Kneeling while praying is no holier than standing. Raising your hands is no holier than not doing so. (Particularly if you’re praying while driving!) We are all different. Nevertheless, it may prove helpful to figure out what works for you and to keep at it. Do you pray better with closed eyes or with eyes open to heaven? Do you pray better standing or sitting? Learn what works for you and stick with it.
The Details of Closet Prayer
What should we pray for in our closet time? There is very little that you can’t pray for. As I’ve said elsewhere, if it’s big enough to concern you it’s big enough to concern God. Nevertheless, here are a few helpful details to keep in mind while praying—particularly if you’re struggling to pray.
First, pray biblically. By that, I mean pray the Bible. If you are ever stuck knowing what to pray, open one of the Psalms and pray it as if it were your own prayer. Look at some of the prayers of adoration in Scripture and appropriate them for yourself. Study Paul’s prayers and make them your own.
Second, pray honestly. As you read the Psalms, you quickly learn that the psalmists held back nothing in their prayers. They wrestled with God. They complained. They lamented. They questioned. There is no place like prayer to raise the questions and struggles you are facing. God is big enough to handle your doubts and your struggles.
Third, pray specifically. James said that we do not have because we do not ask. Often, we do not ask because we are being so vague. Kim and Krickitt Carpenter’s lives were shattered beyond recognition two months after they were married. A horrendous motor vehicle accident left Krickitt comatose for weeks. She suffered severe head injuries. When she finally awoke, she had no memory of her husband and no memory of her wedding day. She initially thought that her husband was one of her doctors and only believed he was her husband when she saw their wedding album.
In the immediate aftermath of the accident, Krickitt faced two major problems. First, she had significant swelling on the brain, which constricted the flow of blood to her brain. The second concern was her dangerously low blood pressure. Together, these complications placed her in severe danger. Even if she awoke, doctors believed that she would be in a permanent vegetative state.
Kim recalls how the family had been praying generally for Krickitt’s healing throughout the day. At last, they realised that, for all their general praying, they hadn’t prayed very specifically. They found the hospital’s chapel and began praying specifically about the swelling on her brain. Twenty minutes later, they returned to the ICU. “The numbers were better,” he writes. “The pressure on Krickitt’s brain was going down, and it just kept going. Nurses were in and out of the room every few minutes, and finally a nurse called for a doctor because she was afraid the probe had slipped out of place.” Long story short: It hadn’t. God was answering the specific prayers of his people.
Encouraged, the family returned to the chapel to pray for an increase Krickitt’s blood pressure. “When we got back to Krickitt’s room, we saw that her blood pressure was on a steady rise. When a nurse came in and saw the new blood pressure reading, her jaw dropped. She looked at me and pointed to the readout. She was speechless for a moment.” Once again, God was rewarding the specific prayers of his people. I wonder if God sometimes doesn’t answer our prayers because they’re so generic there’s nothing to answer.
Fourth, pray communally. By that, I mean pray for others in your community. God is concerned about your needs, but he is also concerned about the needs of your spouse, your children, and your fellow church members. Make it a habit to pray for others. Pray through the church membership. Pray intentionally for your family. Pray for government leaders. As Bonnie McKernan says, “What a beautiful thing to come before our Father of one accord with the same appeals out of love and care for each other. Prayer binds the church together.”
The Dynamic for Closet Prayer
Finally, consider, briefly, the dynamic for closet prayer. David once wrote, “In the morning, LORD, you hear my voice, in the morning I plead my case to you and watch expectantly” (Psalm 5:3, CSB). He prayed and then waited expectantly to see how God would answer. Christians have every reason to pray expectantly as David did. Why? Because we pray in Jesus’ name.
To pray in Jesus’ name does not mean to thoughtlessly tack those words to the end of your prayer. To pray in Jesus’ name means you recognise that you come to God with Christ’s authority and ask your Father to act on your prayers because you come through his Son.
As a Christian, your confidence in prayer is that you never come to God without a mediator. Christ is your mediator both in redemption and in intercession. The unbeliever has no confidence in his prayer because he is not represented before the Father by the Son. But if we are in Christ, having repented of our sins and believed the gospel, we can truly pray in Jesus’ name with great confidence. To quote Thomas Brooks:
As ever you would be prevalent with God, as ever you would have sweet, choice, and comfortable returns from heaven to all your closet prayers, be sure that you bring your elder brother, the Lord Jesus Christ, in the arms of your faith, be sure that you treat and trade with God only in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ…. All our duties and services are accepted of the Father not for their own sakes, not for our sakes, but for Christ’s sake.
If you would have confidence in prayer, pray in Jesus’ name.
As we bring this study to a close, let us commit to pursue the discipline of closet prayer with greater fervency than ever. And let these words from nineteenth century Bishop Joseph Hall encourage us:
It is not the arithmetic of our prayers—how many they be;
nor the rhetoric of our prayers—how eloquent they be;
nor their geometry—how long they be;
nor their music—how sweet their voice may be;
nor their logic—how argumentative they be;
nor yet their method—how orderly they be;
nor even their divinity—how good their doctrine may be, which God cares for:
but it is the fervency of spirit which availeth much.
Let us learn to pray fervently to our Father and then, in faith, watch expectantly to see how he will answer.